Organizers of Three Recent Arts Festivals Pass on Lessons Learned
DANCEfest Austin might not have its newest festival of dance were it not for the local jazz scene. Chris Valentine, founder/director of the two-year-old DANCEfest, is a lifelong music fanatic who happened to be doing volunteer work with the Clarksville Jazz Festival when he found himself drawn to dance. "I was in charge of booking acts for the other stages that featured dance and poetry, so I decided to research the dance scene in Austin," Valentine recalls.
His investigation turned up some dismal realities. "I saw work by companies of all sizes and looked around me in the audience to see very few people there," Valentine says. "I couldn't understand why good work was not being seen." Eventually, he realized that in a city with a strong music scene, multiple film festivals, hundreds of theatre productions, and numerous galleries, dance did not have the visibility it needed to draw a larger audience. Even more distressing, dance did not have a multi-layered local support infrastructure that could offer necessities such as insurance, administrative assistance, and communication forums among companies. What it did have was a collection of artists, independent groups, and dance organizations all overwhelmed by the constant struggle to complete each season. In response, Valentine founded a festival that would shine a light on the local dance community by bringing together dozens of Austin dance artists and companies in a high-profile event intended to showcase their art form and artistry.
DANCEfest has been staged twice now, and Valentine has found that planning for the festival requires a yearlong commitment. He works on it every day, which means this interview had to be squeezed into Valentine's schedule between appointments on a windy Saturday. As he paused for lunch at Schlotzsky's, Valentine talked about this festival that he hopes not only will bring more attention to dance, but will someday help to ease the critical strain on dance companies and their resources.
For Valentine, as for other festival organizers interviewed for this story, the basic point of the event was to draw attention to a bustling and very talented corner of Austin's arts scene. "More than anything, festivals create awareness," he says. "They showcase many artists in a short format and give [audiences] samples of what is happening in the community." With DANCEfest, he says, "in one weekend, people can get an overview of what is going on with dance here in Austin and use that experience to explore different groups throughout the rest of the year. If they see something they like, they might go see them again. DANCEfest hopes to tap into the dance fans. There are lots of them; they just don't know it yet or aren't aware that it exists in such abundance here in Austin."
But awareness isn't solely an issue for audiences; artists can also need to see what is happening in their community, and festivals provide a chance for them to do that. "There is a great need to bring artists together," says Valentine. "Most of them are so busy going to their own rehearsals and working their jobs that they don't get to see other groups very often. DANCEfest gives them the opportunity to network and collaborate and be inspired by their colleagues. It unifies the Austin dance community because artists can see each other's work and share ideas with each other."
Valentine is most eager to sing the praises of Austin dancers, especially in recounting many of the challenging experiences from this year's DANCEfest. "I am forever grateful to the participants. Out of 40 groups, only one group dropped out. The dedication of Austin dancers is phenomenal. I want to especially thank the Irish Dance Company for extending their performance due to a last-minute cancellation and for inviting the audience up to dance with them. Another group that went above and beyond were The Creeps. I know it was really cold onstage, but at least the dancers there could move around. The Creeps performed slow-motion pieces in the lobby with the doors opening and closing, and it was freezing. When they were finished performing, they were blue. And after the first night, I told them that they didn't have to perform, but they kept coming back."
Wintry conditions plagued DANCEfest this year, not just outdoors but indoors, too. The festival performances were held in an auditorium on the Texas School for the Deaf campus, a building that turned out to have no heat. So when the temperature dropped to its coldest point all season, it dropped inside the TSD building as well. "The audiences were incredibly supportive, especially under the conditions," Valentine notes. "They sat huddled under blankets and really enjoyed the dancing. Many people approached me and apologized for not being able to attend more than one night due to the cold."
If only the cold had been the only challenge thrown at DANCEfest this year. But it wasn't, and the succession of serious problems threatened to derail the event a number of times. "I expected it to run smoothly because of all the detailed planning involved," Valentine confesses. "If a crisis cropped up, we would be able to handle it because we hoped it would be singular. What I did not expect were the multiple major crises. A key member of the crew had to drop out the week of the event and we were short-handed; a respected member of the dance community died a week before the show and we were all caught between grieving and production demands; due to the shortage of spaces in town that could house this event, a less than ideal space was chosen and it offered less than we expected -- even though a parking plan was worked out, it was still a major issue. Due to insufficient wiring in the building, we kept blowing the circuit to the lobby throughout the run of the show, which affected the videotaping, the hot coffee, and the musician and dancers performing in the lobby."
What kept the festival on track -- and what for Valentine is one of the key elements of any festival -- is committed personnel. "This was an eye-opening experience for everyone," he says. "The adverse conditions made people step up or run. Victoria Crawford ended up with two jobs: production manager and stage manager. She went to rehearsals for the majority of the companies at their spaces all over town, she managed the crew, called the show for 39 groups, and was the technical/production manager. This event was so fortunate to have her because she was nonstop. I also owe so much to the crew. The entire crew and many of the volunteers banded together to make this event happen, and it did."
Yes, the second DANCEfest happened, and Valentine is already at work on the third, but after the painful lessons of this year's fest, he isn't guaranteeing a fourth. "Attendance is always an issue," says the organizer. "You can do everything right and have lots of support from participants and community involvement, and anything could happen to make people not come to your event. As far as funding goes, the base support was there and I got an increase from last year, but this event needs more money. The show came in with a loss this year, which I covered with my own savings. I will do one more year and see how it goes, but I cannot continue to finance a loss on that scale again."
Chris Valentine isn't about to give up his festival without a fight, but he's realistic about the cost. Asked what anyone planning to produce their own arts festival better have, he replied, "Incredible support financially and a very strong staff working with you."